As we sit down at a long table in his Paris apartment, Antonio Negri, 84, has a thick sheaf of notes in hand, a tense gaze and an exigent air. He is impatient from the flu that has plagued him ever since his return from a trip to Brazil, where he introduced his book Assembly — the fourth part of a joint research project with the American philosopher Michael Hardt, following Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth, and recently published in English by Oxford University Press.
“I’m not able to work as I would like,” he says. A philosopher of worldwide renown, he is now working on the second part of his autobiography. The title of the first part is revealing: Storia di un comunista (The Story of a Communist).
A new volume to be written together with Hardt is already planned. Between Spinozist desire and Marxist practice, with Negri there is no time for reminiscing, and you find yourself speaking from the standpoint of a contemporary position.
Today, a word like “revolution” is something that only spin-doctors paid to concoct electoral programs seem to believe in. For you, someone who has believed so strongly in a revolution to the point of radically changing your own way of life, what meaning does this word hold?
For me, it means a revolution isn’t made — it makes you. We need to stop mythologizing it: The revolution means to constantly live and construct moments of novelty and rupture. The revolution is an ontology, not an event. It is not embodied in a name, whether Jesus Christ, Lenin, Robespierre or Saint-Just.
The revolution is the development of productive forces, of the ways of life of the commonwealth, the development of collective intelligence. I never thought about making a revolution and then going into power the next day.
When I was young, I thought the Workers’ Committee of Marghera [in Venice] would organize society itself around the workers’ council and its ideals, starting from the model of the factory. That was in the ‘70s. Today things are very different, and another mode of production exists: You can organize society starting from a universal basic income, from the new types of work, from the new schools and forms of association, from new types of leisure, escaping the boredom and despair in which we live.
I never thought the revolution would be something that brings you into power, but rather something that changes power itself. It means achieving power in a different way.
This is a fundamental difference: It means not conceiving it from the top down, but from below. The revolution is there when one is able to show that the commonwealth is emerging from the mode of production that is informing life today. It is no longer the “midwife of history” who has the forceps in hand nowadays, but rather the child itself.
Compared to the current language and imagery used nowadays, your own approach has always been non-conformist, to say the least. You usually get the polite response that you are being optimistic, utopian, visionary. On the Left, there is always this grim, realistic attitude, busy with the voluntaristic effort to unite, or the evocation of what is missing. Where do you find yourself in this perspective?
I can answer this by recounting a certain episode, a very practical case. A few days ago, Michael presented our book Assembly in London. He met with “Momentum,” the grassroots network that supports the Labour Party and Corbyn. What is impressive is the encounter between the young and the old corbynists, people who have lived through ‘68 and the struggles of the ‘70s, and who today are pulled in by the enthusiasm of the youngsters who have taken part in the alter-globalization struggles and those of the Occupy movement, the most recent struggles of this generation. Those missing are the people between 35 and 60 years old, the Blairite generation. This is where the new Left is being formed, and it is in these conditions that we are managing to find ourselves today, and overcome the old barriers of social-democratic culture.
Over the past year In the United States there has been much talk of Bernie Sanders. What do you think of his experience?
We are in touch with a friend who has a leadership position in Sanders’ movement. From her accounts, we understand that the American Democratic Party is a power machine that is terrible at managing itself, doesn’t react to what is new and pushes classical social-democratic themes that are not effective.
In the book you describe the extraordinary and dramatic emergence of the American Black Lives Matter movement. What do you think about it?
Black Lives Matter is the future. It is the expression of a movement without leadership.
There are many of these in the world, and the Left should understand them to the fullest: the indigenous ones, for example, which push for common ownership, offer extraordinary experiences. And the new feminist movements, as well, with their strong subjectivity.
It is the very form of capitalism that reveals these new productive forces and these experiences of rupture. This is not just a Marxist discourse, it is a realistic discourse, if you want to finally break free of the “short century,” escape its agony once and for all.
You always speak from the point of view of movements. In Assembly you perform a no-holds-barred analysis of their crisis, and you suggest that we should not underestimate “the lasting power of those who fight and are defeated.” What do you mean by that?
Let’s go back to the Corbyn paradox: the ‘68ers who find themselves together with today’s youth. Just give them a signal, and those who were defeated then will come out again. Because as part of the struggle, they have learned generosity, cooperation, and they won a victory for solidarity. These are “vices” that, once you catch, you won’t be able to get rid of.
If one could do a Foucauldian history of the movements in Italy, one would understand just how many “cynics,” angry communist militants, are found all across the landscape. I mean people who grew up with the “will to know” and revolutionary action, and that was the way they learned to love others, and life itself.
You write that, from 2001 through today, the movements have claimed a new beginning for the Left, but showed an “organizational poverty” and have not risen to the level of the problem they brought up. Isn’t there a risk of repeating the old failures without advancing even one millimeter?
We must, once and for all, get rid of the illusion that something else should come out of the movements. Almost always, the movements express the end of a discourse, and they do not produce an event but rather mark its completion. Sixty-eight was not one particular event, but a construction built over time. Because there had been the ‘60s before, there had been a mass politics on the global level for some time. In Italy, this type of politics was powerful enough to last for 10 years, and it ran through the movement of 1977. Movements nowadays do not understand that they have to build, not just reap the fruits.
I have heard comrades who come from anti-globalization movements, or from the university struggles, saying that after the demonstrations it was time to create an organization. But if they hadn’t made one already before then, they would have never done it at all! They would only be identified by the police as those to be put down. We need to dismantle this notion that the movement will then form the party, the coalition, some sort of result. The movements are themselves the force, and this force will be recognized.
The movements are the strategy. They aren’t born out of an inflow of spirit, or through a mystery that suddenly becomes embodied in society. They are built concretely, step by step, together with thousands of other people, each one starting from themselves. Politics is built up together.
The Soviets are a model for us to think about, born from a specific mode of production, bringing together productive and social forces. Now, in a completely different world, they remain a powerful instrument.
The Soviets are still relevant?
Today we have to build non-governmental and non-proprietary institutions. They would work just like the management of water as a common good, whether in the battle against police violence in France or in the United States, in the great indigenous struggles of Latin America, or in the feminist struggles.
The invention of a new political structure can only be born from the connection between these forces. An institution is not created by a sovereign, but by the need to be together, to produce and live together.
This was the basic idea of the Soviets: to organize the way we exist together in an industrial society, where social cooperation is at an advanced level and has the ability to exert power through the political construction of a productive force.
In the book, you use an interesting expression to describe this construction: “the entrepreneurship of the multitude.” What does this mean?
In some reviews coming from the Anglo-Saxon world, they are attacking us for this concept. Enterprise, they say, cannot be separated from neoliberalism. But I think that today, the relationship between entrepreneurship and institution — from the Latin verb instituere — is something that should be studied in all its depth. Work is always an istitutio. But this ability is nowadays being destroyed or kept hidden under a false concept of freedom.
Creating an enterprise means leaving the workforce free to organize. This is the political discourse that capitalism is stealing away from workers. But we believe that one starts doing politics when the workforce gains the ability to organize itself productively.
And is all this to be achieved through a party? Is this what you are arguing for?
Absolutely not. Nowadays, the autonomy of the political is no longer Leninist — today it is populism. In every age, the autonomy of the political is qualified in some way, if one wants to avoid speaking of it in general terms. And nowadays, the autonomy of the political has been reduced to a language game that makes use of the institutional categories, and is aimed at constructing a submissive people.
I’m reading about what’s happening in Italy, where the electoral law has long become the central locus of this discriminatory use of the political. It is a sheer manipulation of the people and the general consensus.
At stake is not only a minimal criterion of representation, which I think is more and more in crisis, but something deeper: The aim is to prevent people from experimenting with new institutional and productive ways to govern themselves.
Social democracy is in crisis, and there are many who believe that the crisis can be overcome through a “left-wing version” of populism. Do you think that Podemos or Corbyn’s Labour can be interpreted in this way?
Left-wing populism is a case of “ersatz populism.” I doubt that such a logic, as theorized by the Argentine philosopher Ernesto Laclau, could ever invent formulas different from those of “nationalistic socialism.” In Spain, a great debate took place within Podemos about this issue. And the national-populist strain won out.
The controversy happened regarding the role of the party in relation to the movements: whether they should support the movements and create a coalition, or whether they should be a classical party that would contrive in order to find its voters. The project of an “ersatz social democracy” was the one that won, not a project for a reform of the Left.
At the other end of the populist spectrum, Alice Weidel from Germany’s AfD represents a sensational reversal of the positions of the movements: a lesbian, married to a Sri Lankan citizen, who has worked for Goldman Sachs and Allianz, and at the same time a supporter of xenophobic and Islamophobic policies and against same-sex marriage. What does such a figure represent?
She represents emptiness that reproduces itself. Like other characters, she is not a subject but rather a product. Such a product is born by urging on the worst of instincts and arrives at the point of the most outrageous contradiction with what really exists in its own life. This is what populism, in its essence, leads to: creating a people and turning it against even reality itself. This contradiction is tied to the concept of nation, and then, in order, to that of regional and family belonging. This is the way that the forms of property and borders are articulated. The great risk is that of the corruption arising from this.
In my life, I have seen many people do terrible things in the name of the family, right up to the worst forms of corruption. Behind these forms of belonging there is only savagery and tribalism.
What are the other types of populism?
Trump is a very pure example. Macron in France is similar to him in his own way, although he behaves like a technocrat who leads the right and left toward the center according to Juppé’s project.
To the right and left, we find various “freshened-up” populisms. On Mediaset in Berlusconi’s case, online in the case of the 5 Star Movement. Melenchon in France distinguishes between popular sovereignty, that of the 1789 revolution, and a “sovereignism” that is a notion of the Right — a distinction between the ideal of the “nation” and that of “nationalism as ethnicism.”
In this and other cases, such as among the Bolivarians of South America, people never reflect enough on the fact that in populism only the powerful and the rich are in charge, claiming to speak in the name of the many.
It is also possible that this idea of “populism” would produce a backlash against the movements, particularly on immigration, amplifying a xenophobic and racist “common sense.” One can glimpse this risk in the case of British Labour or the German Linke. How do you explain this ambivalence?
There are two ideas that we will never be able to separate from social democracy, as an heir of the “short century”: property and borders. This represents a lethal infection that has now taken root in the heart of Europe, where we see walls erected or where the borders are moved across the Mediterranean, sending migrants off to die in Libyan camps.
Rousseau said that the greatest criminal ever born was the one who first said: “This thing is mine.” But there was an even bigger criminal, Romulus, who said: “This is my border.” They are the same thing, property and border.
Social democracy brought this culture to maturity after 1848, with the Romantic revolution. I’m thinking here of Mazzini. He was, from this point of view, the first social democrat — he supported the popular republic and the centrality of the nation, two elements that have always displayed a reactionary, popular-nationalistic synthesis. The second Socialist International was seized by this spirit against communard internationalism, and tried to combine nationality and revolution into one.
On the other hand, Bolshevism was terrific from the standpoint of world revolution, unifying communism, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. But the tragedy of anti-colonialism was the return of nationalism.
This led to a serious error, which recurs even today in centrist politics of various types: thinking that the alliance of the proletariat with the middle and progressive classes is a strategic step, and not merely a tactical one. The various types of populism nowadays are repeating the same mistake: They think the concept of nation cancels out that of class. It’s a problem that we still have to confront.
We hear more and more often that the alternative to neoliberalism and the crisis is work, full employment, Keynesianism, nationalizations. Is this a solution?
These are proposals that remain trapped within the agony of the “short century” in which we still find ourselves. We are still discussing alternatives that have already been rendered moot: state and national forms of socialism, and a proprietary liberalism of private ownership. We remain hostages of the distinction between private and public, and we do not see all the events that have played out underneath it, and across it, between the 20th century and today.
And what has happened?
The defeat of the ideology of the private and the public because of the transformation of the mode of production. There is a new assembly of productive forces, determined by the transformation of work that has made it common and singularized, taking it away from both the private and public realm. It is a labor force that only functions in a cooperative manner. This is happening in a more and more common fashion. Nowadays, the problem is the organization of social production and the distribution of income, not full employment.
The distinction between work as employment and the novel capacity for work and cooperation is the central element of the debate, and it involves radical consequences in the fiscal realm, as well as social and industrial policies profoundly different from those of the past.
It is being argued, on the Left and among unions, that an “innovator” State will be able to create revolutionary technologies in the green economy, in telecommunications, nanotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Will the new institutions that you discuss in the book come through the State, and what is their relationship with this category, which is becoming more successful?
May such a State indeed come to be, I wish it the best. However, allow me to note that these sectors are still on the market, organized as mechanisms for extracting socially produced value, and are protected in this particular form, even though badly, by the State.
In Assembly, we ask whether these technological wonders could be subjected to democratic choices and decisions. We answer that they cannot. Not before the system of proprietary and ownership-based exploitation (patents, financial rents, monetary organizations) within which these industries operate is recognized as such, and not before this recognition is followed by a democratic process of re-appropriation of the commons.
Now is the time for the re-appropriation of the commonwealth by its producers, and for a democratic reorientation of the management of the commons: It is not the State, but the producers themselves who must say what these technologies are useful for, and what benefits are to be drawn from them or what disadvantages must be discounted.
The workforce is increasingly being organized through digital platforms: Uber, Deliveroo or TaskRabbit. The power of the “silicon overlords” is so broad as to lead some to believe that the algorithm could yield a popular and transparent idea of democracy. Will the digital revolution lead us to something like this?
The workers on these platforms don’t think they are enjoying a higher degree of democracy! And they are struggling against, and resisting, animalistic exploitation.
It is important, however, that the question is posed: Is it possible to reorient the functioning of the control algorithm of the digital platforms? Far from imagining utopian reorientations of the digital platforms toward cooperative setups, it will only be possible to rein in these monsters by dismantling the political conditions in which the algorithm is being imposed: those of private law and its legitimization by the state.
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has acknowledged the importance of a universal basic income. Will Silicon Valley realize what has been called a practical utopia?
Zuckerberg is forcing us to study the ways in which technology and the activity of work intertwine in the production and use of social media. It is there, in that space, that the possibility to make democracy come alive again shows itself to us in a paradoxical manner. I think this space is where the revolutionaries’ quest will start again. It is such a space that, mutatis mutandis, Marx analyzed in the first volume of Capital 150 years ago.
It is there, where man encounters the exploitation of new machines and new masters, that the notion of class is reborn and the Revolution shows itself as a path.
In all, are you convinced that only a universal basic income will save us?
No, indeed, it is obvious that this cannot solve the problem by itself. It is the preliminary element, and nonetheless the central one, for the social reorganization founded on the commonwealth and on the overcoming of the categories of private and public property. And the confrontation must happen in the financial realm.
The problem is who controls finance. The central banks are the Winter Palace of today.
Antonio Negri: his struggle and his work
“The movements are the sign of that continuous revolutionary process through which capital has tried to impose its own power over life, but where life has violently expressed its rejection,” writes Antonio Negri in the first part of his autobiography (Storia di un comunista, Ponte Alle Grazie).
The 84 years of his life have been marked by his relationship with the labor and social movements.
There have been politics, research, conflicts, and his arrest on April 7, 1979, along with hundreds of activists of the “Autonomia Operaia,” as a result of the “theorem of Pietro Calogero,” the name of the judge who instructed the trial. This “Theorem” was defined by Rossana Rossanda, founder of the Italian newspaper il manifesto, “a vile political operation, the vilest ever carried out by the judiciary of the Italian Republic.”
Nowadays Negri is one of the most influential political philosophers, author of over 60 books and translated into many languages. Together with Michael Hardt, he has written books ranging from Il lavoro di Dioniso (Manifestolibri, 1995) to Assembly (Oxford University Press, 2017). His works also include Impero (Rizzoli, 2001), Moltitudine (Rizzoli, 2004), Comune (Rizzoli, 2010), Questo non è un manifesto (Feltrinelli, 2012).